Category: Fiction

Ekaterina and the Firebird

Posted 17th May 2018

Trigger warnings
contains brief description of an attempted sexual assault

Ekaterina could not bear to go to sleep and miss the last moments of what had been a wondrous fourteenth birthday. She sat on the window seat in her bedroom and hugged her knees as the last minutes of the day melted away like spring snow. In the corner of the room, her maid Agafya snored softly.

Below them, the parlor clock began its midnight toll. Agafya startled awake with the first peal of the bell.

“Ekaterina–?” she mumbled blearily. Her eyes sharpened. “Why are you still awake? Have you taken your draught?”

“Must I? It’s my birthday,” Ekaterina protested.

The clock continued to chime. Agafya paled. “What time is it?”

“Midnight, I think.”

Agafya sprang up and flew across the room to seize the goblet waiting beside Ekaterina’s bed. “You must!”

“Oh, very well,” Ekaterina grumbled. She took the cup and raised it to her lips. The clock finished tolling twelve as the last drops slid down her throat.

Agafya sighed, her shoulders untensing as she took the empty cup from Ekaterina’s hand. “Why are you still awake, child? You should be tired after such a long day. And what a feast it was! So many guests came to see my little bird gloriously launched into the world! Even Councillor Nikitin said what a fine affair it was, and he has seen the splendors of the Tsar’s court.”

“Oh, it was wonderful, Agafya! Nothing so interesting will happen to me again for years!”

Agafya sniffed. “Be patient. Ordinary joys and sorrows will seem interesting enough, I promise you.”

“I suppose.” Ekaterina’s cheeks warmed. “Nikolai Semyonevich Egorov was very attentive. So handsome, too. And the Egorovs have lived near us for centuries, and–”

“Do not pin your heart to an Egorov,” Agafya interrupted.

“What? Why not?”

“That story is not mine to tell. You must ask your papa later. Now, it is well past the proper bedtime for young ladies, even young ladies of the great and advanced age of fourteen.”

“Yes, Agafya. I’ll go to sleep soon, I promise.”

“See that you do.” Agafya yawned, retired to her cot, and was soon snoring away.

Ekaterina returned to gazing out into the night, remembering the compliments that Nikolai had whispered to her before Agafya the ever-vigilant had interrupted their conversation.

Perhaps Agafya was making an elephant out of a fly? Ekaterina’s papa had invited Nikolai. Would he have done that if things were so ill between their families? Agafya was often overprotective, shooing Ekaterina away from boys and even interrupting visits with other young ladies if the conversation strayed to topics she deemed not quite proper.

Ekaterina hugged her knees even tighter and glanced out at her father’s apple orchard. She gasped as she saw fire leaping between the branches of the frontmost apple trees.

Ekaterina jumped to her feet to shout “Fire!” Her cry died of sheer astonishment in the next second, when the fire . . . flew.

Her eyes widened. Even as a little girl, when her baba told her stories of the Firebird, Ekaterina had never imagined that she might someday see it herself. The good fortune brought by the touch of its light could make this the most important birthday of her life. If she hurried, she might reach the Firebird before it vanished.

She had no time to don proper attire. She seized the everyday sarafan that Agafya had worn earlier in the day and pulled it on over her light nightgown. Dress on, she stopped only to push her feet into the embroidered slippers beside her bed. She eased the door open slowly so as not to wake Agafya, and then she was off.

Downstairs, she swung her fur cloak around her shoulders, pushed the door open, and ran lightly out over the first snow. The guard dogs yipped inquisitively as she ran past.

Ekaterina’s parents always scolded her for running–such an unladylike exertion–but she was an excellent runner. She could outrace all six of her older brothers, though they teased her that it was because of her large feet. Now she sprinted as fast as she could. The light blanket of snow muffled the snap and crack of twigs as she ran. Melting snow soaked her thin slippers, and the jagged ends of fallen twigs poked her feet.

Only a thin sickle moon hung in the sky, but the apple orchard was lit as if by a golden harvest moon. Ahead of her, dancing fire flitted through the trees, illuminating the last hanging remnants of the apple harvest.

She chased the Firebird through her father’s orchard and across the bordering farmland. She had to slow down, or she would have turned her ankle as she ran over uneven fields of harvested rye, but cutting through the fields would get her there faster than taking the curving road.

The flickering flame vanished just before Ekaterina stumbled to a halt in front of the village. Inside the homes, hearth fires would be banked for the night, as peasants huddled together under quilts to stay warm. Outside, picketed goats clustered close to each other for heat. She searched for any hint of light. Then the fire appeared again, rooftop-high, as the bird dodged between houses and out the other side of the village. Ekaterina broke back into a run.

At the edge of the village, she hesitated. Cold seeped through her fur cloak and froze perspiration to her body. Snow soaked her slippers and turned her feet to blocks of ice. In front of her lay Chyorniy Forest. Children were not allowed to play near its edge, and even the women who picked mushrooms in the forest kept within sight of the village and stayed in groups.

The Firebird’s wings flickered through the forest in front of Ekatarina. She thought of how the luck of the Firebird could help her family, gathered her bravery, and plunged into the darkness. The thin moon’s light was too puny to illuminate the forest, and the deeper she went, the darker it became. She slowed to a walk, her hands in front of her to keep from running into a tree. The flickers of fire drew farther and farther away, and the forest grew darker and darker around her, until she knew she must be lost. She began to shiver and think about the stories her baba had told her of what happened to little girls who wandered into Chyorniy Forest.

She needed to figure out how to find home. She could see nothing where she stood, so she felt around until she found a tree trunk so wide that her arms could not span it. With such a wide trunk, it must be a giant grandpapa of a tree.

Darkness spread itself around her. She could not tell tree branches from the night sky. She could not even see her own hands gripping the tree. Sometimes she thought she could see patches of lighter darkness where her hands ought to be; other times she was convinced that any difference was her imagination.

She climbed until the tree trunk split into branches of a girth no wider than her own. Then she strained her eyes looking for the glimmer of snow-covered fields in the moonlight, or the glow of a lamp in a village window. She saw nothing.

She stared up at the slim crescent moon. “God our Father,” she prayed, “rescue me, for I am lost and do not know my way.” Tears welled up in her eyes and she tried to blink them away.

When she could see again, she thought at first that the moon had grown brighter. Then the glow above her split, and the Firebird dove down toward her. Its light showed her that she sat in a towering wild apple tree. To her dazzled eyes, the tree branches appeared to be rimmed in fire.

The Firebird settled onto a branch just out of her reach and cocked its head to consider a wizened, twisted apple hanging nearby. Ekaterina smelled smoke, but although the Firebird’s feathers were made of flame, the tree did not burn. Heat caressed her face like the summer sun.

The Firebird’s shadow fell over the branches only a couple of feet away from Ekaterina. She shifted her weight and slowly inched towards the shadow and its promise of good fortune.

The Firebird’s head snapped around, and it pinned her with its diamond-edged gaze. It fanned its wings at her. Furnace heat rolled over her, and she shielded her face with her arm. When she dared look again, the Firebird had retreated well away from any branches she could reach.

The Firebird swiveled its head as it studied the barren branches around it. When she saw it hunch as if it were about to spring into the air, Ekaterina cried, “Wait!” She plucked an apple near her and tossed it toward the Firebird.

It speared the fruit with its beak, then pinned it with a foot and pecked at it.

“Come back with me,” Ekaterina said. “Even the worst apple left in my family’s orchards will taste better than a wild one. We have more than what you saw tonight! Only one of our orchards is here; the other one is at our distillery. Our trees produce only the sweetest apples. I can show you where all the best ones are.”

The Firebird’s faceted crystal eyes gleamed with reflected light. “But we are in a wild forest,” it said, “and your apple trees could not survive here. This tree is strong and right for where it is. It does not try to be an orchard apple tree. It knows what it is–and its fruit is more delicious for it. Have you even tasted it?”

To be polite, Ekaterina plucked a nearby apple and dubiously took a bite. The overwhelming sourness of it puckered her mouth. She was about to spit it out when its honey-sweet aftertaste rolled across her tongue. She chewed, swallowed, and thought for a few moments. “I like the apples my father makes brandy from better.”

“It is always better to know than to assume.”

“I don’t know where I am,” Ekaterina tried, hopefully.

“There is much you don’t know, little apple-eater,” the Firebird told her. “But you will find out.” Its wings snapped open.

She fell back and shielded her eyes from the curtain of fire. “No, wait!” she cried, but the Firebird leaped up from the tree branch and took to the sky, a comet in reverse. Nearby, a wolf howled its appreciation.

The chorus of spine-tingling wolf calls that answered made Ekaterina grip the tree trunk tightly. One of the howls sounded as if it came from directly below her.

Feeling around the tree branches and trying to remember what she’d seen in the Firebird’s light, she found her way to a natural cradle formed from three branches forking off the main trunk. She settled into that cradle, letting her legs dangle to either side of the trunk. A slight breeze on her bare ankles startled her, as she imagined a slavering wolf leaping to sink his fangs into her flesh and pull her down. Had she climbed high enough to be safe? She was certain she would not sleep a wink.

***

A cascade of birdsong woke her the next morning. She expected to see the Firebird, but instead a shchegol flirted its golden feathers at her as it warbled from a branch above her head.

“Oh! Dobraye utro, little one!” she greeted it.

She looked down and quickly shut her eyes. The only wolf that could reach that high would be a giant twice the size of Papa’s prize stallion.

In daylight, she could see where the forest ended. The village lay a short walk walk away, though at night it had seemed impossibly farther. Ekaterina climbed very carefully down from the tree. Her limbs ached from running and climbing, and she didn’t trust them to hold her up.

She wished very much for a slice of wheaten bread and a glass of milk, and for Agafya to plait her hair, which was tangled and wrapped around twigs and leaves and bits of bark from her wild pursuit of the Firebird.

Sunlight filtered through the dark, crowded trees and birds sang high above her. Soon she would be home in front of the fire with a mug of kvass. She walked faster.

A masculine voice called, “Ekaterina!” It was Nikolai. Her family must have raised a search party. She thought again how bedraggled she must look.

She picked leaves and twigs out of her hair and twisted it into a rough braid. Then she called, “Here! I’m here!”

Her heart swelled when her rescuer–never mind that she no longer needed rescue–plunged out from between the trees. At the sight of Nikolai’s handsome face and the way his eyes fixed on her, she felt stirrings lower down. She blushed and envied how magnificent he looked in his gray-embroidered overcoat and waistcoat. His breeches were immaculate, and his stockings didn’t have a single snag. In comparison, she looked a bedraggled wretch.

“Ekaterina, I’m so glad to have found you.”

She would have protested his familiarity, but he seized her and pulled her to his chest. She pushed at him, and he loosened his embrace just enough to kiss her.

It was–interesting. She’d often wondered what it would be like to be kissed. His lips were firm and dry. His scratchy face rubbed against hers, and she was fleetingly reminded of her baba, a wrinkled apple of a woman with bristles sticking out this way and that. It ran in the family; Ekaterina had to pluck downy hairs from her own cheeks and upper lip every few days. Then Nikolai tightened his grip. The faint scent of sweat and leather rose up around Ekaterina, and his strong arms held her firmly. For a moment, she could think of nothing else.

He released her with a smug, masculine grin. “Why did you run off into the forest?” he scolded. “You must not do such things once we are married.”

“I was hunting the Firebird. But–married?”

“I spoke with your papa last night about the benefits to our families of joining together, and he did not tell me no.”

She lifted her chin, remembering Agafya’s warning. Nikolai was fine-looking, she admitted, and he had paid close attention to her at the feast, but he was no great conversationalist. He had seemed disturbed when she tried to discuss philosophy or the history she and her brothers had learned.

“Papa would never betroth me without my consent!” she flashed, angry at his presumption. “He’s told me many times that I am too young to think about marrying. I am sure he only said he’d think on it, and that because he did not wish to spoil the evening. Only last week, he assured me that I need not think of marrying for some time. As for benefits to our families, I see only the ones to yours.”

His eyes darkened. “Then you will have to persuade him,” he said.

Ekaterina was suddenly very conscious that they were still too deep in Chyorniy Forest for anyone to hear her if she screamed. She longed for Agafya, who had been there from her earliest childhood to ensure her virtue remained uncompromised.

Nikolai stepped forward.

She stepped back.

He lunged for her.

She turned to run, but her exhausted legs betrayed her. She stumbled and fell. He was on her in an instant.

“My father and brothers will kill you!” she spat.

“And who would have you then? No, a marriage will be in everyone’s best interest.”

She wriggled under him as he held her down and began to push her skirts up her legs. Desperate, she craned her neck–and saw a branch as thick as her arm that had fallen almost within reach. She scrabbled through the forest loam to grab it. As soon as she had the branch firmly in hand, she brought it whistling up at him, in a blow that would have split his skull if he hadn’t recoiled and jumped off her in the very same instant.

“What witchcraft is this?” he demanded, staring at her bare legs and backing away. “You are a leshy, trying to trick me.” He looked around wildly, as if he expected other spirits to coalesce from the forest’s shadows and attack.

Ekaterina hurt. Tomorrow, she would have deep purple-black bruises where he’d gripped her. The remembered joy of flirting on her birthday died like a rabbit crushed between a wolf’s jaws.

She braced the branch against the ground and pushed herself to her feet, swaying. Tightening her grasp on the branch, she took a step forward. Her throat was tight and her eyes stung, but a hot fire rose in her.

Nikolai turned and ran.

She threw the branch at him. It struck the back of his knees and knocked him down. Tree bark scraped his face as he fell. Blood seeped through his fingers where he pressed his hand to his cheek, but he picked himself up and fled.

Ekaterina circled around the village, keeping off the paths and sticking to the fields and trees. At the moment, wolves seemed safer than men.

When she saw her home, she ran toward it, despite her aching legs. She stumbled as she ran, but she could not stop herself. The guard dogs heard her first and bounded out, barking their welcome. Ekaterina collapsed to her knees and wrapped her arms around their necks, burying her face in Zaychik’s ruff while Belka stood guard.

Her mama and her brothers Vasily and Oleg tumbled out of the house. When Ekaterina’s mama saw her, she let out an inarticulate cry, hiked up her skirts, and ran to her. She pulled Ekaterina into a tight embrace as Vasily and Oleg stood awkwardly nearby.

Ekaterina had barely managed to choke out her story about the Firebird and becoming lost in Chyorniy Forest before she glanced over her mama’s shoulder and saw Misha, the brother just a year and a half older than she, running up from the village.

As soon as he was within earshot, he began talking. “Nikolai Semyonevich Egorov just stumbled into the village babbling of demons in the forest. He’s not the kind to be frightened into thinking the tree branches are reaching for him, but he said–” Misha stumbled to a halt and stopped speaking when Vasily and Oleg drew apart to reveal Ekaterina behind them.

Voice trembling, Ekaterina asked, “What did he say?”

The very air seemed to hold its breath.

“He said–he said that witchcraft had turned you into a man.”

“What? That, that peasant! He assaulted my honor.” Her mama went very still. “He found me in the forest and said we would be married. When I said no, he–he sought to press his attentions.”

“That worthless swine!” bellowed Vasily. “Come, brothers, let us go punish him for his temerity!”

Their mama put her palm flat against Vasily’s chest. “Wait. Ekaterina, before anything else is said or done, there is something your papa must tell you.” She paused. “And your older brothers, too. Oleg, run and find your papa and brothers.”

***

Ekaterina’s mama and papa gathered them all into the parlor: Oleg, Vasily, Aleksandr, Evgeny, Luka, Misha, and Ekaterina.

“Daughter–” her papa began, then stopped. “Ekat–” He cleared his throat. “Child. This whole mess began in the time of your great-great-grandpapa Leonti, during the reign of Mikhail I Fyodorovich Romanov. Our family was not so wealthy when he was born, but he was the seventh son of a seventh son, and that has always meant something special for us. In those times, the orchards flourish, and what we distill has a unique fire that makes each bottle sought-after. Our family prospers.

“Your great-great-grandpapa had a rival, Rostislav Fyodorovich Egorov.” At Ekaterina’s gasp of surprise, he nodded. “Yes, Nikolai Semyonevich Egorov is his great-great-grandson. The Egorovs have held a grudge against us for a very long time.”

“Then why did you invite Nikolai to my birthday feast?” Ekaterina burst out.

“Making a wolf pup believe it is a dog is one way to keep its fangs from your throat. At least for a while.”

Ekaterina frowned at that, but let her papa continue his story.

“As I was saying, they have always held a grudge against us. Vodka and brandy alike, people seek ours over theirs. In your great-great-grandpapa’s time, Rostislav went to a ved’ma living in Chyorniy Forest and paid her to put a curse on our family.

“Now, it happened that your great-great-grandpapa Leonti was a kind man, which is fortunate for all of us. One day, he was hunting in the forest with his dogs when he saw an old woman gathering firewood. ‘Wait, old mother,’ he said. ‘Let me do that for you.’ As you have no doubt guessed by now, the old woman was one and the same as the witch who cursed our family. Because he had helped her, she warned him of the curse, though she could not lift it.”

“What was it?” burst out Evgeny, Ekaterina’s second-youngest brother. “We are not cursed.”

“Not until now.”

The room fell into a silence sharp as winter’s first bite.

“This is what the ved’ma told your great-great-grandpapa: ‘In your family,’ she said, ‘the seventh son of a seventh son has always distilled an exceptional vintage. The curse that Rostislav had me put on you changed that. The next time there is a seventh son of a seventh son, what your family produces will be exceptionally awful. Instead of smooth fire, your vodka will be so terrible that not even the lowest beggar will drink it, and your family fortunes will be ruined.'”

“Over the generations, our family switched from making vodka to brandy. We prospered. When your grandpapa warned me of the curse, I laughed. Surely such a thing could never affect us in these modern times.”

Ekaterina’s papa looked at her. “I was at the distillery when you were born. When the next taste of brandy I had was rank and bitter, I knew the family story was not just a story.”

“I don’t understand,” Ekaterina said, though a numb, floating feeling was beginning to spread through her limbs. “There is no seventh son.”

Her papa and mama exchanged looks.

“We were going to name you Ivan,” her mama said softly.

“Oh!” Ekaterina staggered backward and placed her hand over the sudden pain in her stomach. Her back hit the wall and she sagged against it. Her brothers stared at her with stunned-ox expressions. What they saw on her face, she could not imagine. She slid down the wall and sat in a crumpled heap on the floor.

“So we named you Ekaterina,” her mama continued. “Instead of a seventh son, we raised a daughter. And all these years, with the help of your maid Agafya, we have kept the secret.”

“I knew I’d have to tell you one day.” Her papa sighed. “I thought it would be when you asked why we had not arranged your marriage. But now our secret has been revealed.”

After a blizzard of silence, Aleksandr asked, “If Ekaterina is–not our sister anymore, does that mean the curse will fall on us?”

Hearing “not our sister” opened a dull ache in Ekaterina’s heart. She let the numbness spread as she waited for an answer.

“If so, we will know soon enough. One can plan, but God puts everything in its place,” her papa said.

“Nikolai said that Ekaterina was a witch, or had been replaced by a forest spirit.” Misha looked at her with worried eyes.

Her mama put a hand to her heart. “Who was he talking to? Will they come here and demand to see Ekaterina?”

“Egorovs.” Her papa spat on the ground. “Always trouble for our family.”

Ekaterina shakily pushed herself up. “Let me go to the distillery while this is figured out. It is far enough away that trouble should not follow me.”

“Yes.” Her papa eyed her. “Pretending to be a girl will do no good now. You can be as you were meant to be, though we will need to introduce you as a cousin. The distillery is perfect–you can practice being a boy there.”

Ekaterina felt as if a pit had opened under her feet.

***

When Ekaterina set out with her papa, Vasily gruffly told her to lower her voice to sound more masculine. Oleg said that being a growing boy, she should eat all she wanted. Aleksandr loaned her half his wardrobe. Evgeny joked that Ekaterina was the best-looking of all the brothers, and understood women besides, so the girls had better look out. Luka said he’d keep watch for the Firebird and send word immediately should he spot it. Misha just hugged her goodbye.

At the distillery, Ekaterina’s papa said, “This is our cousin Ivan, who is interested in learning brandy making. Treat him as you would one of my sons.”

The workers bowed. Ekaterina bowed in return. That, at least, was the same for a man or woman. Wearing only breeches and waistcoat left her feeling naked under the men’s gaze, and the startling lightness of her short-cropped hair left her dizzy–and, when she was outside, cold.

The curse had not fallen yet; the brandy being made was neither extraordinarily good nor extraordinarily awful. “Perhaps the curse is still confused,” her papa said. “Nikolai is raising questions about your absence. We must wait.”

She waited. She missed home. She missed her brothers. Though men’s garb didn’t require assistance to put on, she missed the ritual of preparing for the day with Agafya by her side. She missed sitting in the kitchen and gossiping with Cook while learning her recipes. She missed evenings spent sitting beside the fire and spinning, or embroidering an ornate shawl for feast days.

The men expected her to join them in drinking brandy or vodka in the evening “to keep the wolves away.” She half-wished that she had let the wolves eat her instead.

Then she would not have to stride around half-naked and wholly not herself, being introduced to people under a fake name. She would not have to pretend she knew the ways of someone who had grown up a man. Her papa kept saying it was what she was meant to be, but it did not feel that way. It didn’t seem like it would get easier any time soon.

It all came to a boil one evening when her papa had a guest over for dinner.

“It is soon to think of, perhaps,” her papa’s friend said to her, “but I have an unbetrothed daughter of about your age, young and strong and loyal. She is skilled at spinning and embroidery, well-versed in household management, and even knows something of distilling spirits. She is a Godly girl, virtuous and happy in the place decreed for her in this world.”

Disorientation swirled through Ekaterina. Bile rose in her throat and she blindly stumbled to the door. She pushed it open and sucked in a deep breath of cold air.

“Ivan!” her papa called from the table. “Are you well?”

Ekaterina couldn’t take it anymore. She could not go back, where the overseer would greet her as ‘Ivan’ and clap her on the back, where her papa’s friend and others like him would speak of her being husband to his daughter as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.

Her feet fell one in front of the other, her breath rasped in and out of her lungs, the wind whipped her cheeks, and she realized that she was running. Ekaterina was very good at running.

She ran past the distillery. She ran over the frozen creek and into the distillery’s apple orchard. Panting, she stopped in the middle of the trees, unsure where to go next. She collapsed on the ground, pulled her knees up, and rested her chin on them. She wished for a skirt to bury her face in.

Past the tree trunks, she saw gray stone and the swirling blue and gold onion domes of the church. People streamed out the doors as they left the evening service. Now that vechernya was done, she would have the church to herself. She pushed herself up and stumbled through the orchard and down to the road.

Inside the church, she paused for a moment to cross herself and let her eyes adjust to the dimness. Banks of candles flickered. Gold-painted icons watched her with wise and mournful eyes. She venerated the icons and then lit a candle, sending up a prayer that she might know who and what she was meant to be. In the turmoil of her heart, she prayed for a long time, as the sky darkened.

When she was all prayed out, she stared numbly at the candles. Their flickering flame mesmerized her. The curve of them reminded her of the Firebird’s plumage. “It knows what it is–and its fruit is more delicious for it,” she heard the Firebird say.

She knew what she was not. She was not Ivan. Being a boy felt all wrong. She doubted she would feel differently even if she had been raised as a male.

She lit a candle in gratitude and left the church. Once she was among the apple trees, she flung her arms wide, tilted her head back, and shouted, “I am Ekaterina Davidovna Barteneva!”

The stars above flared brightly. One grew larger and shot down toward her. For a heartbeat, she feared she had misunderstood God’s sign to her, and he was going to strike her down for her impudence. Then the star dipped and curved, and she saw it was the Firebird. Over the orchard the Firebird flew, dazzlingly bright, casting its shadow over the trees and onto Ekaterina, who stood openmouthed below.

A few shriveled apples remained in the distillery’s orchard, the ones so bird-pecked, worm-riddled, and difficult to reach that they had been left as not worth the effort in a prosperous harvest year. Now they glowed. The snow melted off them. Their wrinkles plumped out, their scars filled in, and their dark red skins shifted to tawny gold. The aroma of ripe apples filled the air and lingered even after the Firebird was gone.

Ekaterina plucked one of the apples and hefted it in her hand. Its flesh was firm, and its skin gleamed golden in the moonlight. She brought it to her nose. It smelled of apples and honey and long summer days. She hesitated and then took a huge bite out of it. The apple crunched under her teeth, and its flavor rolled over her tongue.

She was transported. Sweet and strong and complex, the flavor was beyond anything she had ever experienced. She closed her eyes as the apple fell from her hand. The taste was all that she could think of. She did not know where she was, or even who she was. Then she swallowed, and the flavor faded slowly from her mouth, like memories of a heaven glimpsed.

Once she was herself again, Ekaterina ran through the out-of-season orchard and into the house. Their guest was long gone, and her papa sat on the bench beside the dining room table, his head in his hands. His dinner had cooled on the table.

“Papa, it’s me, Ekaterina,” she said, not bothering to deepen her voice.

He sat straight. “Ivan,” he corrected.

“No. Ekaterina. And,” she broke into a radiant smile, “the Firebird came again! He flew above me. The shadow from his wing fell over me and the orchard.” She sank to her knee beside him and took his hand. “All will be well. The curse has been broken.”

She pulled her papa out of the house, across the snow-covered ground, to the brandy distillery. He heaved the bar from the door, rushed through, and seized the tasting cup. His fingers trembled. He filled it under the spigot of the collection chamber, brought it to his lips, and swallowed. A beatific smile spread across his face.

He held the cup to Ekaterina. “Taste.”

The sip of apple brandy burned down her throat like fire from heaven. It had a primal edge that aging would smooth out, but it still tasted finer than anything her family had made in generations.

“Let’s go home, Papa. We have wonderful news.”

“Yes, but in a couple of days,” he said. “Our guest told me that Nikolai is deeply in debt, far beyond what he can recover from. He has been borrowing on his expectations and promising his creditors that you two were all but betrothed and that your dowry would be handsome. A word in the ears of his creditors, and he will soon flee far enough away that he won’t be able to cause any more mischief.”

When Ekaterina and her papa eventually returned home, Ekaterina’s absence and short hair was explained away by saying that she had been secluded because of a feverish sickness. To any who asked, Ekaterina said she was grateful that the fever had passed and her mind was clear again.

In the fullness of time, Ekaterina married a slim and beardless young man whose hair was the same golden-red as the apples in her orchards. The gossips who said Ekaterina was an “unnatural” woman grumbled their way to silence. Her husband was often away on business, but he always returned when the apples were ripe and golden. He seemed content to let his wife run her ancestral distillery along with her brothers.

During Ekaterina’s lifetime, all agreed that the brandy her family made was the best in all of Russia, fit to serve to the Tsar himself. And long after the reign of the tsars ended, the extraordinary virtue of Ekaterina’s apples endured.

Originally posted on Tor.com, Wed Jan 1, 2014.


Roundabout

Posted 11th May 2018

Nicole hears Edith Piaf. The song seems to be coming from her mass spectrometer. After poking at the output port, she concludes that it is not her homemade scientific equipment, but the radio she cobbled together out of boredom and leftover parts while she was waiting for the vacuum pump to come in the mail.  She misses having a lab. She misses state of the art equipment and she misses the resources of CERN, even if she doesn’t miss all her stuffy colleagues pointing out how ridiculous her theories were.  She’s possibly not the best electrical engineer, though, or there’s something wrong with the power in her sister’s apartment, because both the radio and her mass spectrometer keep randomly turning on. At least only one of them is playing a French love song.

She’s been in her sister’s place since she came back from Switzerland. She really needs to get a place of her own, not that Lauren hasn’t been nice about everything. Nice and quietly judgmental, and Nicole can’t really blame her.

Physicists didn’t get fired from the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator project. Well, except for Walter, who had been stealing quadrupole magnets. And Stephan, who had a propensity for inappropriate pyrotechnics. And, well, herself. But it wasn’t as though they didn’t know what her specialty was when they hired her. It was only a matter of time until they needed to consider how traffic physics would affect the Large Hadron Collider.

Traffic physics is a relatively new field of research, even though the forces have been around since someone invented the wheel, and everyone knows that other lane is always going faster than you in a traffic jam. You couldn’t smash particles together like sedans in a highway accident and not expect to have the repercussions effect everything moving in that same direction, no matter how large or small. It would necessarily cause some sort of massive destruction, which was all she was trying to prove at CERN.

The property damage from The Incident was presumably a factor in her termination, and she can see now that it wasn’t her best moment to try to use the rubble as proof of concept. The Incident was, embarrassingly, picked up by the news. A fluff piece about a bird breaking the machine that people feared was going to break the world. At least they’d kept her name out of it, though it wasn’t as though she was going to be able to get another job anytime soon. Not without some research to bolster her entirely scientifically-sound theories. Unless creating the Higgs boson particle did open up a black hole, that would count. Except then the world would get sucked into the black hole and it wouldn’t matter what was on her resume.

No, proof was what she needed and proof was what she was going to get.  So she shoved everything she owned into the closet of Lauren’s guest room, tucked the futon into the far corner, and built what she needed. She hasn’t actually explained the resulting mass spectrometer to Lauren, who probably suspects Nicole of stealing a bunch of lab equipment from CERN in retaliation for being fired. Nicole usually gets as far as saying “traffic physics” before Lauren gets that glazed expression that historically meant she was dreaming about decorating or elaborate catered dinners.

Her brother-in-law’s borrowed amp, hooked up to the magnet current control, hums to life, red bass and treble needles flicking wildly. Today’s traffic forecast was perfect for data collection; Friday rush hour before the weekend.The light drizzle should slow down people who are afraid of hydroplaning, or can’t remember where their wipers are, or are experiencing the Rule of Hydro-Traffic Convergence which governs why people hit their brakes when they see water start to fall from the sky.  The convergence of the Speed at Which People Travel Toward a Vacation Destination should give her ample variables. She’s one step closer to getting hard data that proves her theories right: that traffic physics really does affect everything from particle velocity to lane merging, and more importantly, that if no one listens to her, the Large Hadron Collider is going to destroy the world.

The music, though, is driving her crazy. She wiggles a few knobs, and then freezes when a pigeon, which is confusingly inside the house, lands on her head. She swats it away in a panic and it flutters frantically around, panicking, too. For a brief moment, Nicole thinks that maybe the pigeon is a pet that Lauren had failed to mention, but her sister’s never been an animal person, and it made much more sense that it was somehow Nicole’s fault.

The mass spectrometer starts to smoke and she abandons swatting at the pigeon for unplugging whatever cord is closest to her, but not before the smoke alarm goes off. She grabs the nearest piece of clothing and waves a flannel shirt under the smoke alarm. The movement frightens the pigeon, who can’t seem to decide which to flee from first, shrieking noise or  Nicole’s smoke-dispersing semaphore.

Everything is quiet for a moment; no fluttering wings, no torch songs, no sparking electronics, no smoke alarm. It’s so quiet that she can hear every excruciating sound of the bathroom pipes cracking.

Her sister is going to kill her.

***

Nicole gets her legs soaked using a wrench to turn the water off and starts to give up hope that Lauren might not notice the damage. Maybe at least she can take care of the pigeon before it poops on something expensive. She tries to entice the pigeon out a window, first with bread and then, based on some half-memory of what food attracts wild animals, she makes it a peanut butter sandwich. The pigeon just looks at her with eerie black beady eyes and a cocked head that means it is judging her.

This can’t be her fault. Not anymore than The Incident at CERN. And yet here Nicole is, hardly an hour into her first experiment, and she was back on the theme of debris.

And now she was just glad the water hadn’t seeped through the floor to the downstairs apartment.

She debated whether she was better off texting Brian about the pigeon instead of Lauren. Though she still hadn’t actually told him she’d borrowed his amp. It wasn’t like he was going to pick up that dusty electric guitar anytime soon.

On the kitchen table next to her phone is a card for Mr. Handyman: The Fix It All Solution. It makes Nicole wonder whether her sister is psychic or just more in touch with the reality of Nicole’s bad luck than Nicole is herself.  She dials the number. The pigeon coos at her and then perches on the back of a chair.

“Mass spectrometers don’t cause structural damage,” she chants to herself, the same undeniable fact she’d presented to the review board after The Incident. “They are a measurement tool only. Mass spectrometers – Oh, hi,” Nicole says, when the receptionist picks up. “No, I don’t need a mason. I was saying that mass spectrometers don’t cause structural – Yes, sorry, I need a plumber.”

 

Exactly an hour and a half later, her sister’s cheery door buzzer chimes and Nicole shuts the spare room with the kick to the bottom corner of the door– it’s the only way it will latch. When Lauren showed her, Nicole was ecstatic that something in Lauren’s perfect life needed a kick to work properly. Now, though, it just makes her toes hurt.   She briefly entertains locking the pigeon in her room, but the damage it could do to her equipment is either worse or equal to the damage to Lauren’s sophisticated classic style. At least a pigeon on a chenille throw is easier to explain to a plumber than a pigeon on a mass spectrometer.

The door buzzer chimes again and Nicole hobbles to the door and swings it open.
“Hi,” she says. The pigeon circles the chrome chandelier, making her regret her decision not to lock the bird away. “I’m Nicole.”

Mr. Handyman is a beautiful woman, with a red hair in a braid under a well-worn baseball cap. She’s holding a shiny red toolbox and is trying very hard not to look at the pigeon.

“I know,” Mr. Handyman says, because of course she knows who Nicole is. She’s not randomly wandering the neighborhood offering plumbing services.
“And you’re Mr. Handyman.”

“Dianne,” she says. “Mr. Handyman’s the name of the company.”

“I thought it was your title. I’m trying to be respectful and show you how I understand how challenging and fulfilling home repair is as a profession.” Nicole’s making the name thing weirder, but explaining herself is supposed to help. Or that’s what her sister says when Nicole’s being especially awkward. That and “Jesus, Nikki, what is wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong?” Mr. Handyman asks, echoing the question in her head, probably because Nicole is staring now, silently working out how to backpedal.

“The bathroom,” she says, showing Mr. Handyman in.

“Something – broke,” she adds uselessly, “Do you want coffee?”

She really hopes Mr. Handyman says yes, because at least that will give her something to do.

“Sure,” Mr. Handyman says, and then goes to take a look at Nicole’s plumbing situation, dropping her toolbox with a clatter on the tile floor.

***

Nicole decided to start her experiment early this morning after she’d had the light-bulb moment about the roundabouts. If two vehicles, or two high-energy particle beams in the collider’s case, went off track and veered into each other, the resulting crash would turn the symbolic roundabout into a literal black hole.

Not that Nicole was going to engineer any traffic accidents. She was merely going to simulate one, overlay the data on the readout from a test-run of the collider. Then she could extrapolate the apocalyptic outcome of the collider being operated while unsuspecting drivers entered roundabouts all over the world.

“Nicole?” Mr. Handyman comes into the kitchen and startles Nicole out of her disaster rumination.

She takes off her hat, which can’t be a good sign. “You need some new pipes,” she says. “You were quick with turning off the water. Looks like you saved the floor.”

Nicole imagines a giant hole in the bathroom floor, the supporting floorboards splintering. When she pictures it, it’s a lot like The Incident. She can almost hear the percussive explosion that was absolutely and in no way Nicole’s fault.

“Do I need to go shop for pipes?”

The idea sounds horrifying. She’ll have to tell Lauren. She’ll have to go shopping. She doesn’t like shopping in the first place, but shopping for bathroom components seems possibly the worst.

“I have everything I need with me. I can fix it right now.” For a moment Mr Handyman’s  gaze falls over Nicole’s shoulder. “Unless you want me to take care of the pigeon for you first.”

“How did you know the pigeon was a problem?” Nicole asks. The pigeon is viciously tearing away at the shag rug like it’s a fresh french fry, sea green fibers grasped in its claws.

“Seemed like it was being pretty destructive,” Mr. Handyman says.

“No, it’s OK,” Nicole says, desperate to make everything seem normal, though at this point there’s no reason to lie. “Whatever makes it happy.”

It comes out more of a falsely cheerful mantra than she means it to.

“Sure,” Mr. Handyman says, and Nicole hides her face in her hands as soon as Mr. Handyman’s back is turned.

***

The coffee’s finally ready, after Nicole remembers to plug the machine in, fill the water carafe, then actually press the start button. Coffee making isn’t normally this much of a challenge for her, but the pigeon keeps taking flight at Mr. Handyman’s clanging.

“Mr. Handyman?” Nicole says, carrying the coffee over, and then she promptly stalls out on the rest of the sentence.  This is her chance to make up for the weird name issue conversation and the weird pigeon conversation and actually sound like the nice, friendly, flirty, person she is. Or, well, could be. “How’s it going? Do you want milk?” she finishes lamely.

“Black’s fine. It’s Dianne,” Mr Handyman says again. “Mr. Handyman’s the name of the company.”

She unfolds from her pipe yoga and wipes her hands on her overalls before taking the cup. “I’m almost done. It’s a good thing there’s not much of the floor to replace. I’m not that good at floors, have to get Roger, especially with tile. I hate tile.”

“Oh,” Nicole says. “Yeah, me, too. Hate tile.”

Nicole is terrible at this. At talking. To a person.

“I gotta let the caulk set, you got anything else broken you want me to look at? A hole in the wall where that pigeon got in? I can fix a hole in the wall easy.”

“Maybe you can take a look at my…..equipment.” It sounds like a bad pick-up line, and she hurries to say something else. “And tell me why it was smoking?”

She doesn’t really want to show Mr. Handyman the room that makes her look like a pretty convincing mad scientist, but it’s better than having to explain she doesn’t know where the pigeon came from at all.

“Sure,” Mr. Handyman follows Nicole with calm equivocation, like she deals with vague smoking equipment all the time.

“It’s hopefully still not smoking now, but it set off the smoke alarm earlier, and it’s not supposed to do that, I mean, ideally nothing would set off the smoke alarm. Except a fire. It really upset the pigeon. I should warn you, the room’s kind of a mess. Oh, and the door sticks, it’s these old apartments and there’s this trick you have to – ”

Mr. Handyman kicks the door at just the right spot and it pops open.

“Oh,” Nicole says, and follows Mr. Handyman in.

“You must be in a band,” Mr. Handyman says, taking a moment to survey the room. “Never seen anybody with this much stereo equipment who wasn’t in a band.”

“I’m a physicist,” she says. “I got fired.”

Mr. Handyman nods sympathetically.

Nicole continues,”I worked for a big project, over in Switzerland, and they didn’t like some of my theories and I can get a little stubborn and perhaps I might have implied that the universe would end in a black hole if they didn’t listen to me.”

“Wow,” Mr Handyman says.

“And that same day there was an unfortunate incident with a baguette.”

“At lunch?”

“It was stuck in a vent, right near the section I was working on. A couple of people claimed I was sabotaging it.”

“Were you?”

“No, it was most likely a bird.”

“A bird was sabotaging your experiment?

“It was flying by, and dropped the baguette into a vent, causing it to overheat and malfunction.”

“So I’m just gonna put this out there,” Mr. Handyman says, “But is there any chance the bird who dropped the baguette over in Switzerland was a pigeon?”

The pigeon has followed them over into the guest room, and after fluttering entirely too close to Nicole’s hair, lands and starts pecking at wires like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Mr. Handyman hefts open the glass pane of the single window in the room and makes a shooing gesture, and the pigeon flutters over and immediately goes out.

“Why did you ask about the pigeon?” Nicole asks.

“Kind of a weird coincidence, you know, you have two bird stories. I can’t say I have any bird stories.”

This was just her life now; an unemployed physicist with bird problems.

“Pigeons are a touchy subject in the sciences,” Nicole rambles. “And there’s Tesla.”

“The band? See, I knew you were in a band.”

“Nicola Tesla, the inventor. He had a whole thing with a pigeon. A love story. It was strange.”

“So what’s wrong with your mass spectrometer?”

Nicole’s so grateful her ramble is cut short that it takes her a moment to realize that Mr. Handyman knows what a mass spectrometer looks like. Even when it’s cobbled together our of borrowed stereo equipment.

“I’m just guessing,” she continues, not waiting for Nicole’s answer, “but I bet it’s a problem with the wiring. I feel like you’re probably violating some building codes. Or maybe it’s your magnets. They said that’s what happened with the collider.”

Nicole stops short. “What? The Large Hadron Collider? What do you mean, what happened?”

“Are you sure your magnets are OK?” Mr. Handyman is stalling, Nicole is certain.

“Tell me what you know about the collider.”

“Hey, look, your pigeon is back.” It’s another poor attempt at distraction, except, it’s true, the pigeon is back, tottering on the fire escape. “Want me to let it in?”

Pieces of something that’s been bothering Nicole the whole time start to come together, disjointed and puzzlingly familiar. “You don’t seem surprised it’s back!”

Mr. Handyman doesn’t wait for her permission. She opens the window and the pigeon hops right back in.

“You knew this was a mass spectrometer, even though it’s in my sister’s guest room. You knew how to open the trick door. And you knew my name!”

There’s a long silence, where Mr. Handyman takes off her hat, smooths her hand over her hair, and puts her hat back on. “Look, I ought to tell you, we may have done this a time or two before.”

“We’ve done this. This conversation?”

“This day,” Mr Handyman says. “So, there’s good news and bad news. Good news is you were right about the black hole.”

“I knew it! Wait, if I was right, then that means –”

“Yeah, see, I did say there was bad news, too. And it didn’t so much as make a black hole as–well, something else. Non-aligned events and intervals between them,” she says, exactly like she’s repeating someone else’s words. Nicole’s words.

“It made a time loop? You’re–so I’m–Why do you remember and I don’t?”

Mr. Handyman shrugs again. Her braid falls behind her shoulder.

“How long? No, don’t tell me, that will just confuse me because we don’t have contemporaneous reference frames. What happens?”

“What just happened, basically.  There’s the pigeon every time. That’s why I asked about its intentions regarding the baguette. I hadn’t heard that part of the story before.”

The pigeon flies over their heads and dives back toward the kitchen.

“Are you the reason we’re in a time loop?” Nicole asks the bird. “Are you trying to tell us something? Are we supposed to go back in time and stop the collider?”

The pigeon lands again, a torn piece of peanut butter sandwich dangling from its beak.

“It does seem to like bread,” Mr. Handyman observes.

The same Edith Piaf song come crackling out the radio again. Nicole reaches for the dial, and stops at Mr. Handyman’s resigned expression.

“This is it, then? This is when the loop resets?”

Mr. Handyman nods.

“So we’re gonna do this again,.You’ll remember and I won’t.”

“Maybe you’ll remember this time.”
“Oh, this is horrible! Is this a prelude to being sucked into a black hole? Is it an infinite loop? You must be exhausted. And furious that you have to explain this to me over and over.”

“Hey,” Mr. Handyman says. “It’s OK. It’s not that bad.”

“You are so nice,” Nicole says.  “You are the nicest person I’ve ever met, and you’ve had to fix my pipes and catch my pigeon like a hundred times and I don’t even remember.”

Mr. Handyman smiles at her warmly.

“Maybe you’ll remember something simple. Like my name. You can stop calling me Mr. Handyman. It’s Dianne.”

Edith Piaf’s croon about her beating heart pitches up into static.

“It was nice meeting you,” Nicole says. “Dianne. We should do this again sometime.”

“I think were about to,” Dianne says.

***

Nicole can’t get that Edith Piaf song out of her head. There’s a pigeon on the fire escape, and she gets this eerie feeling that it’s been watching her for a while. Everything was going fine with the first phase of data collection, until her equipment started playing music like a radio on seek, and giving off an awful burning plastic smell. The smoke alarm starts shrieking the same time an unfortunate watery thunk echoes out from the bathroom.

Her sister is going to kill her.

***

She picks up her phone and then notices the business card on the table. That’s convenient. She dials Mr. Handyman: The Fix It All Solution. She hopes the floor won’t need replacing.

“… have to get Roger, especially with tile.”

The name pops into her mind as she stares at her sister’s basketweave mosaic tile floor. Was it Lauren who had said that?

“Hi, I need Roger,” she says, when the receptionist picks up. “No, wait.” She listens to the overwhelming feeling in her gut. It’s not Roger she needs. “Dianne. I’m looking for someone named Dianne.”

The pigeon taps at the window with its sharp gray beak, like a knock.


My Family is from Nowhere

Posted 3rd May 2018

Trigger warnings
Descriptions of physical violence (including domestic violence), homophobic language, and fatphobia

My family is from nowhere.

I wake up with the phrase in my head. It sits there, hanging over me, while I stumble around the flat, looking for my shoes. As I drive to work—the vast, iridescent Sydney sky gleaming above me—I’m enveloped by my own private, impenetrable fog.

The phone rings as I’m parking the car. It’s a journalist. Can he ask me a few questions?

“No,” I reply.

“What was your brother like as a child?”

  (more…)


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